Two Cheers for the Truth?

For overly passionate people, partisan views can erode facts, threaten consensus, and even spur fanaticism that dehumanizes others

By Roger AndersonMarch 6, 2018

Which word has more letters, Clinton or Trump?

The answer may seem obvious: Seven is greater than five, so Clinton is the longer word. Yet in 2017 when conservatives faced a similar question that asked them to compare two photos of dissimilar crowds, something interesting happened.

“In the images used as part of a Washington Post survey, Barack Obama’s inauguration crowd is clearly larger, but some Republicans answered that Donald Trump’s inauguration had more people,” says John Bullock, political science. “It’s hard to believe that the people who gave that answer actually believed it. I use it in my research as an example of people acting insincerely.”

Insincere answers, Bullock believes, are part of the wedge driving political partisans further apart. People may know that what they are saying is false, but if the claim seems to support their political party — or criticize the other party — they may say it anyway.

To shed light on the paradox, Bullock, a professor in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and a fellow at Northwestern’s interdisciplinary Institute for Policy Research, is determining how engrained this partisan cheerleading might be.

His experiments have shown that small payments for correct and “don’t know” answers to factual questions sharply diminish the gap between partisan Democrats and Republicans. On average, Bullock says, people do think through unbiased information when they are incentivized to give their considered opinion rather than a “motivated response.” Motivated responses, he says, can be pure cheerleading, or can result when people believe that they are answering sincerely, even if they are drawing on memories in a biased way — as can occur when someone consumes only partisan media.

“Our conclusion is that the apparent gulf in factual beliefs between members of the different parties may be more imagined than real,” says Bullock. “To say the two sides aren’t that different might seem like a good thing, but it also means that people’s beliefs about factual matters, like the economy, matter less to vote choice than we might have thought. So I’m not sure that our findings are entirely good news.”

Even if people don’t necessarily believe strongly in their answers to survey questions — in a 2010 Harris Poll, nearly one in four Republicans said they thought Obama might be the Antichrist — there is no denying the resulting fissure in American politics. And the very real dislike for the other side seems to be worsening, says Bullock.

“A few decades ago, when asking parents if they would be unhappy if their child married someone who identified with the opposing party, extremely few people would have said ‘yes,’” Bullock points out. “Today, those polls show that a near majority of people would be dissatisfied with the choice.”

But how can the intense negative feelings that Democrats bear toward Republicans and vice versa, be reduced?

Bullock considers two possibilities: The first is to encourage face-to-face contact across partisan lines. The contact may be minimal. It doesn't — and perhaps shouldn't — involve talking about politics.

“Evidence suggests that this sort of contact reduces partisan enmity — especially relative to exchanges that are conducted through social media,” Bullock says. “The second option is to promote nationalism. Some evidence suggests that emphasizing common nationalism  reduces Democrats' dislike of Republicans, and vice versa.”

Worsening Relationships

When relationships between people who are “different” worsens, to the point of dehumanizing one another, a new set of concerns comes into play.

Research by Nour Kteily, management and organizations, shows that people who blatantly dehumanize another group are more likely to want to keep a social distance from them — avoiding them as neighbors and colleagues. Kteily uses social psychology tools to investigate how and why hierarchy and power disparities between groups emerge.

His preliminary work in the political realm suggests that Democrats and Republicans who dehumanize one another are more likely to want to obstruct the other side politically. They are also more likely to share online memes that insult the other side’s intelligence, even expressing enjoyment at their opponents’ suffering.

Kteily warns that hateful rhetoric can create a vicious cycle of dehumanization, a situation where people confirm the other side’s negative expectations. He and his colleagues demonstrated the notion in a series of studies examining how Americans regard Muslims. The researchers do note that if non-Muslim Americans reach out to Muslim neighbors to denounce hate speech against them, the cycle could be broken.

Risk of Violence

Cycles of dehumanization are of particular concern because the more people dehumanize another group, the more likely they are to condone aggressive or even violent actions against that group.

Violence is not inherent in religious fanaticism, but extremist viewpoints can exert a catalytic effect that may lead to aggression, says Jordan Grafman, physical medicine and rehabilitation, neurology, psychiatry, and psychology.

"Fanaticism provides a culture — no matter how limited in size — that permits the expression of aggressive behavior in certain contexts by a subset of people who consider themselves part of that culture,” he says. “Keep in mind that we are discussing social beliefs that are independent of cold, cognitive achievements, so even the smartest people can have rigid ideas.”

Grafman’s preliminary research shows that variation in the nature of a person's religious convictions seems governed by specific areas in the anterior parts of the human brain.

“Our work indicates that in patients with damage to the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, cognitive flexibility and openness are inversely related to religious fanaticism,” says Grafman, director of brain injury research at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago.

“This indicates that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a brain region important for flexible and creative thinking, is crucial for diverse religious thinking.”

Cognitive interventions, training of caregivers, and certain medications may mitigate some effects of the damage, but Grafman says the results are modest.

Parts of the prefrontal cortex are important for storing and valuing a range of acceptable social behaviors. Damage to the region may simply reduce accessibility to that range, making it more likely that only a person’s most frequent behaviors are easily accessible. Not everyone with limited prefrontal-cortex function is destined to become religiously fanatical — if damage is very restricted and the person has a sufficient cognitive reserve, then the effects can be quite mild — but when the damage is combined with environmental factors, these individuals appear at greater risk of overlapping frequent and extreme behaviors.

Grafman sees fanaticism as likely resulting from genetic predisposition, cognitive development, and social psychological biases.

“Although religious and other beliefs can be studied selectively and independently from other cognitive and social processes, their dependence upon, and interaction with, other brain functions will be an important area of research in the coming years," says Grafman.